Lila Thielmans in the new documentary "Yiddish." (Photo/Courtesy Icarus Films)
Lila Thielmans in the new documentary "Yiddish." (Photo/Courtesy Icarus Films)

‘Yiddish’ documentary spotlights 20th-century poets and their 21st-century admirers

One of the joys of Yiddish, to appropriate the title of Leo Rosten’s essential 1968 cultural dictionary, is how swaths of young people around the globe embraced its vitality and relevance in the late 20th century.

The rediscovery and renewal of Yiddish culture was not a passing fad, or so one concludes from “Yiddish,” a new, spirit-raising film from longtime Israeli documentary cinematographer and director Nurith Aviv.

The 61-minute film became available to stream online on March 2, and a screening with a talk featuring the director and UC Berkeley professor Chana Kronfeld, whose fields of expertise include Yiddish and poetry, is set for March 7.

Bouncing from Berlin to Paris to Tel Aviv to Vilnius to Warsaw, Aviv invites seven impassioned scholars — most of whom appear to be under 40 — to describe their individual journeys to the study of Yiddish. Each imparts a chunk of insight derived from their research and recites a poem by a favorite, long-departed Yiddish author. The poem’s Yiddish text (in Hebrew characters) appears on the screen very briefly, so aficionados might want to hit the pause button so they can read it. There is also an on-screen English translation (not a subtitle) as the poem is being read.

Polish translator and Yiddish teacher Karolina Szymaniak delivers Debora Vogel’s piercing “A Poem About Eyes.” Valentina Fedchenko, a non-Jewish Russian Ph.D. who teaches and translates Yiddish in Paris, treats us to Moyshe-Leyb Halpern’s “Memento Mori.”

Raphael Koenig, a French Jew with a Ph.D. from Harvard who is on the editorial committee of the online Yiddish studies journal In Geveb, caps his segment with the utterly modern “Idle,” by Peretz Markish, whom Koenig calls the Yiddish Rimbaud, a French poet of the late 1800s.

Though beautifully shot by Cédric Dupire, “Yiddish” is not a particularly cinematic experience, given that it consists largely of fixed-camera, sit-down monologues in bright, quiet apartments. But the speakers are so articulate and enthusiastic that their adoration for their literary forebears and heroes easily carries us for the entire hour.

One eye-opening takeaway from this film — which expands and repositions Yiddish culture far beyond the context of the shtetl — is that many Yiddish poets between the two world wars embraced avant-garde movements and were modernist innovators. With themes such as urban alienation and the desperation of love, it’s no mystery why their work speaks to millennials.

And while Rosten’s appreciation of Yiddish in his book was likely predicated on nostalgia for what then seemed to be a dying culture — and/or a Borscht Belt sense of humor — this film is about the vitality and relevance of Yiddish in the present moment.

If you are a fan of Yiddish, poetry, Jewish culture, linguistics or related intellectual pursuits, “Yiddish” will warm your heart. And quite possibly send you searching for the collected works of a new favorite poet.

“Yiddish” In Yiddish, Hebrew, French and English with English subtitles. 61 minutes. Not rated. Available for streaming on Vimeo, iTunes, Ovid.tv and via BAMPFA event. 

BAMPFA talk on “Yiddish”

Virtual event with director Nurith Aviv and UC Berkeley professor Chana Kronfeld presented by Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive. Pre-register and watch the film on your own before the talk.. 12 p.m. March 7. $8-$12, includes film and talk.

Michael Fox

Michael Fox is a longtime film journalist and critic, and a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Film Critics Circle. He teaches documentary classes at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute programs at U.C. Berkeley and S.F. State. In 2015, the San Francisco Film Society added Fox to Essential SF, its ongoing compendium of the Bay Area film community's most vital figures and institutions.